The End of an Era

School uniforms and new pencil cases are in the shops and this is the time, every year since 1989, when I look forward to meeting my new students at Bangor University’s School of Lifelong Learning.  But not this year.  Lifelong Learning closed on 31st July.  So although we’ll be teaching out all those who want to complete their qualifications via different parts of the university, there is now no dedicated centre, staff or courses for mature and part-time students at the university.

It’s such a loss.  A loss to the community.  A loss to the families of the students who might have been.  And the greatest loss of all is to the individuals themselves who might have dared, heart in mouth, to step forward and enter higher education and have their lives transformed as a result.

And what a loss to me!  The people I’ve encountered through teaching literature, women’s studies and creative writing have immeasurably enriched my life.  And Lifelong Learning has enabled me to devise and deliver modules that would have been unlikely to fit into mainstream degree courses, such as the one on freewriting that I’ve mentioned more than once in this blog.

When I heard the news that Lifelong Learning was being axed due to financial cuts I turned to my notebook and began to freewrite.  Out came a whole host of voices and stories from these past 28 years.  Once edited, they became the prose poem below: a series of first-person statements based on the real students I’ve taught but each one a mixture, a composite, of many different people.

I hope that these voices celebrate and commemorate the great achievements (and heartaches) of the last three decades of the “extra mural” project at Bangor University and show in some measure what has been lost by allowing money to be the ultimate determinant of the value of education.


Cost Effective Lifelong Learning by Kathy Hopewell

I run a local charity.  Before going back to study part time, my cancer diagnosis had stripped everything from me: marriage, work, hope, confidence.  The course was a lifeline, literally.

I am a schoolteacher and my evening classes at the uni are the only times anyone asks me what I think.

I’m agoraphobic but once I’d registered, my desire to learn about psychology was greater than my fear of going outside.  Now I’m thinking of going into social work.

At work, I was the one who stayed late to lock up and the one who cleared up spillages.  After I got my degree, things changed.  Now I do the orders, now I have a section under me.  Now I have enough to put some money by.

I’m disabled and having the classes spread out was the only way I could have got through a whole degree. 

I was an old-fashioned salesman with a briefcase and a business card.  My degree was the best thing I could have done because when the company went under, I didn’t, and now I’m self-employed.

I never used to speak to anyone after my wife died.  Now I get together with my classmates to talk about the assignments.  I suggested they came to my house next time.  The doctor’s taken me off the anti-depressants now.

I’ve worked in retail all my life.  Getting to grips with social theory was the first time I’d used my brain in years.  I reckon the two things together will really give me an edge: it’s like seeing the world with completely new eyes.

Before I came on the course I honestly didn’t know that I felt so strongly about social justice.  Now I’m running a drop-in centre and it’s all paid for by an application that I put together.

I’m in recovery but in class, people see something more interesting in me than my addiction.  In fact, I don’t even think about myself much anymore, instead I think about the next time I can get into the library and what I’ll say during the session next week.

Truth Versus Fiction: the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition in Paris

My novel about the Surrealists, Swimming with Tigers, is loosely based on real people and events, but having the latitude to adapt, recombine and invent elements and individuals within the movement made it possible for me to recreate key moments so that they reflect the guiding themes of my book.

One of the things I wanted to do was to explore what Surrealism meant for women: whether it provided a rare opportunity in history for women artists to work as equals in collaboration with men, or whether the movement was male-dominated in its membership and in the content of the artworks.

A significant scene that occurs fairly on in my book brings all these questions to the fore.

The scene depicts the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, 1938.  This exhibition was a landmark in art history because, instead of following the traditional white walls format, it used the whole environment of the gallery as a canvas and represents an important stage in the early development of installation art.

The exhibition consisted of three main arenas, each designed to disorientate the viewer.  The first was outside, in the courtyard, where Salvador Dali’s Rainy Taxi (now kept permanently at the Dali museum in Figueres) was situated.  It is a real black taxi with an interior water-system, and contains life-sized models: the driver has a shark’s head and the woman passenger in the back is surrounded by lettuce and has live snails crawling on her.  In my novel I have added live frogs, which Dali did indeed plan to include, and a pile of eggy liquid in the woman’s lap to anticipate the literally sickening conclusion to the scene.

The second environment of the exhibition was a pitch-dark “street” (indoors), lined with female shop mannequins which had been dressed with strange objects and fabrics by individual Surrealist artists such as Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and André Masson (of the sixteen mannequins displayed, only one was dressed by a woman, Sonia Mossè).  Spectators walked along this dubious parade of provocative “women” scanning each one with the hand-held torches that were provided as the only light source.

The street of mannequins led into the third area, a large grotto containing four large beds, and the similarity to a visit to a brothel was intentional.  In this last room, Surrealist artworks were displayed under a ceiling (designed by Marcel Duchamp) of 1,200 low-hung coal sacks.  The floor was covered in dead leaves and there was also a brazier and a pool of water.  A recording of laughter increased the immersive, unsettling effect of the environment.  On the first night a Surrealist dance was performed by Hélène Vanel, who tore her clothes, wrestled on the beds with a cockerel, and ended by wallowing in the pool.

I kept all these details in my fictional account (although I made up some mannequins of my own).  The exhibition is described from the perspective of Penelope, an artist and member of the group whose work is included but who has had no involvement in putting the exhibition together.  She wanders through the different spaces with growing disquiet and is sexually assaulted next to the parade of women mannequins on offer to the spectators.  She then discovers that her own Surrealist object has been exhibited under a title that has been given to it by another, male, artist.

The experience of having one’s work appropriated is drawn from the life of Meret Oppenheim, whose teacup, saucer and teaspoon covered with fur, one of the most famous and recognisable icons of Surrealism, was renamed by André Breton, the leader of the movement.

Oppenheim’s title for her arresting creation was simply “Object”.  In a transgressive act, she turned a domestic item into a fetishistic object, challenging restrictive definitions of femininity.  However, when it was exhibited Breton gave it the title Le Déjeuner en Fourrure (Luncheon in Fur) in a deliberate allusion to Edouard Manet’s painting of 1863 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass).  In Manet’s well-known painting, set in the countryside, a naked woman is surrounded by fully-clothed men in a coded reference to prostitution in the Bois de Boulogne just outside Paris, and as part of a tradition in fine art painting in which women’s bodies are shown as sexually available and allied to nature.

In my version, the fur cup has been renamed “From One Hand to Another”: a title meant to reflect the exchange of women as objects between men, and the extension of this to the works of women artists.  It would be giving away too much to describe what impact this experience has on my fictional woman artist, Penelope, but suffice it to say that she does not tolerate this level of control for long.

Surrealist exhibitions such as this one in 1938 gave many women (often very young, such as Leonora Carrington who was only 21) the chance to make and exhibit work alongside men.  Opportunities for women artists were certainly greater than in any previous (and several subsequent) art movements but the sexual politics of the art was often retrograde and the characteristic tactics of shock and outrage frequently drew on the definition of woman as sexualised object rather than artistic equal.

In my novel, I’ve tried to recreate the liberation and excitement that the women artists might have felt at being part of a movement that actively included them, but also their frustration with the regressive sexism that restricted and defined their place.

Publish or Perish?

When I began writing ten years ago I thought that there was some natural process by which writing became published: you did it and then it would appear in print, rather like going through with a pregnancy and ending up with a baby.  Now I know that there are as many ways of being a writer as there are writers, and the spectrum of publication stretches across vast areas of difference from having just a few readers to being a commercial bestseller.  In between are writers’ groups, small presses, self and/or e-publication, blogs, subscription arrangements and now crowd-funding

Two particular writers on opposite ends of the spectrum of publication have been occupying my thoughts recently.

The first is my father-in-law Robert Hopewell who died at 91 years old just a couple of weeks ago.  I knew that he wrote poems as part of his lifelong practice of Zen meditation, mindfulness, yoga and tai chi, and that they were connected to his work as a visual artist and wood carver.  As far as I know he never attempted to publish or even share his writings very widely.  He had occasionally showed a few poems to me but I couldn’t really receive them, being blinkered by the more literary, canonical poetry I taught in university classes.  But after his death I had the chance to see all the writings together, copied into large sketch books, often decorated with abstract designs, and the sum of the poems in combination with his long life and steadfast practice of Buddhist detachment has become clear.

His poems are direct, unsophisticated, and unencumbered by the need to impress.  He writes broadly in the tradition of Japanese haiku in short poems that are acts of observing and exercises in clarity of mind.  The poems are as concerned with releasing experience as with capturing it.

For instance, here is a piece called “Practice Death Poem”:

Waking to the familiar

What a strange and wonderful thing

Dying to the familiar

What an adventure

One of the most significant aspects of the poems is the way in which the writer is completely unconcerned with the impression he makes: self-judgement has been more or less completely jettisoned and there is absolutely nothing to prove.  And the real power of these poems is that there is no audience imagined, expected or addressed.  The complete absence of the idea of publication has created the perfect conditions for significant statement: the value of this work is a result of its utter privacy.

But what a paradox!  To never seek publication might guarantee the worth of a body of work but if it is never read, then what is the purpose of all that effort?  Language is communication.  You might argue that the point of private writing is self-expression but without another to hear or read the work, is the self really expressed at all?

This question takes me back to one of my great heroes, Emily Dickinson.  Her poetry is now regarded as some of the best ever written but her work was not published in her lifetime and she made only a few abortive attempts to submit her work to the conventional women’s magazines of her day in mid-nineteenth century New England.   Instead she included her poems in correspondence to friends and arranged her own method of production by sewing together collections of her poetry and storing them in a desk.  Her poems were so advanced, complex, compressed and unconventional that it’s possible she preferred to keep them semi-private rather than to compromise and instead publish the sort of sentimental, regularly-rhymed verse that many women of her genteel social background did.  Again, there is this intensification, and the authenticity that comes from turning away from the marketplace (I am aware of the theoretical naivety of these statements but I cannot always be a postmodernist!).

One of Dickinson’s most famous poems compares the publishing industry to slavery, stating that “publication is the auction of the mind of man”, but her work did eventually emerge into the light.  The extent of her achievement was discovered after her death, fought over, published (sometimes in bowdlerized editions) and every generation since has found meaning in her work.  Feminist poets and scholars in particular have read her with increasing understanding and admiration and she has inspired many poets to take up the challenge of her forensic, daring poetics.  Without widespread publication and the dissemination of her extraordinary work this would not have been possible, but for Dickinson herself, wasn’t it better to remain unpublished in her lifetime, in the same way that my father-in-law’s poems gained their force from silence and unselfconsciousness?  This goes against the grain of our success-oriented society and the gospel of celebrity.

The other writer I have been thinking about is most assuredly a success and has sold over a million books worldwide: this is Jessie Burton, whose novel The Miniaturist became a runaway bestseller in 2013.  By chance I came across her tremendously interesting blog and was shocked to read about the breakdown she suffered after the enormous success of her book.  I’m very happy to say that she has now recovered and her second novel, The Muse, is doing well.  It’s plain that the trauma following the strain of sudden celebrity shook her to the core and she was severely afraid of never being able to write again.

To be writing, as Burton is now, for an established readership with specific expectations and a lot of money riding on it is the complete opposite of the other writers I’ve been describing and it poses the question of what writing is really for.  I believe that each writer must decide what their definition of success really is.  I think for Robert it was the direct expression of the truth as he saw it without the false distortions of the ego getting in the way, and for Dickinson it was about accurately witnessing the glory and terror of existence.  Jessie Burton speaks, in a veiled way, about her next book being braver in content and it seems as though she has taken ownership of her position as a public writer and is intent upon using it well.  For me, then, as I prepare to submit my novel to agents and publishers once again, I am aware that some sorts of commercial success are not always a wholly good thing, and that literary quality and meaningfulness is not solely measurable by reader numbers.

I’ll let Robert have the last word (about words!):

This is a freewritten blog…

This is a freewritten blog, the first time I’ve tried it and it’s not going to be easy to be thinking in public and actually put down my genuine thoughts as they occur because that’s what freewriting is and there’ll be a fight going on here, even fiercer than usual between my hand moving the pen and not allowing my mind to edit as I write with the need to say useful, coherent, appropriate things.

It’s 30 years since Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and the long online interview in LA was so good! [“Natalie Goldberg with Steven Reigns” at]  She even confesses to always having been in competition with the author of Bones meaning she never hit such heights again but that might just be sales because she must know that Wild Mind and Thunder and Lightning and now True Secret are every bit as good if not better than Bones.

writing-down-the-bonesI’ve been doing this [freewriting] for 10 years at least but to go into a classroom and explain it and why people should do it (if they want to write) is still very hard.  I can’t say I do freewriting properly anymore or even completely regularly but I can’t go for many days without it.  And now I’ve lost my track because just now the phone rang…it was out of area so I didn’t answer.  If it’s anyone who really wants me, or exists (vs a computer) they’ll leave me a message.

So what to say about Natalie and Bones?  Without it, no writing.  Absolutely. It was the decider, the guide, the best friend I had when it all seemed pointless.  Natalie was the only person who ever fully convinced me that writing is worthwhile for its own sake and surely the relaxation, the dropping of all that tension around being good, and competing and how to succeed, the letting go of that, has meant I could come to write the stuff that’s turned into our performances.  Such a good gig on Sunday! [Hopewell Ink, see “About” page] Everyone there was linked to me speaking we were all in the same moment and D’s new soundtrack was so good, it was motoring on, giving a sort of drive to the whole thing at the end and the coffee helped too.

So Natalie feels like to me, and presumably lots and lots of others as the one giving permission (Who Gave You Permission? is a chapter in Wild Mind, I think) and that’s who I want to be in the classroom on Saturday.  And will they be smiling by the end?  That’s the test.  The room warms up and people connect and you can feel the energy change.  That’s what happened before and it did my writing good and I wrote all the exercises and played the games too.  I have to get the paper slips ready and using scissors will make this RSI in my hand worse.  I resent it when it’s cooking or cleaning but nothing will stop me writing I’ll take ibuprofen if necessary.

natalie_goldbergNatalie is older and she’s had cancer but of course she’s written about it and that’s how she’ll have coped.  How would I manage if I couldn’t write?  What if I was in prison?  But what good does it do?  Natalie says you’re not creating any more suffering no she says everything is, she she I am stuck now which is odd because it’s more usually at the beginning and now I’m thinking about Women’s Studies and the conference which is it? where they need a speaker because someone’s dropped out.

The Zen stuff is very hard to convey from Natalie’s book, where it makes complete sense, to students.  What does Monkey Mind mean?  It’s what I’m trying to get past: all that stuff about the gig and the uni e-mails.  And what’s underneath?  Me, a woman in navy joggers because I’m hoping I’ll do some yoga later (unlikely but there’s a chance) and sitting here in Bethesda at my desk and so relieved, so relieved that I don’t have to drive to the hospital tonight.

So a blog abut Natalie and the 30 years since Bones.  Well, it could be about her core message: observe the mind, or it could be just me, taking it to some new people again this weekend and hoping it does change their lives for the better, as education can but only as writing does on this deep and dangerous level.  And now that sounds bad so I’ll have to edit it out but that would be cheating.

I used to despise D’s friend for not editing and think I knew better.  I wasn’t a writer then.   Now I know that it’s two halves of the same thing.  The freewritten and the edited are the two halves of a whole piece of writing.  And the freer the freewrite (and the writer who writes it) the stronger the final piece will be.  That’s a simple message, from Natalie, through me, to everyone listening.

Training to Write

Imagine what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete about to compete.  Your name is called.  You raise your arm, or fit the pedal straps to your feet, or stand at the edge of the diving board, or crouch in readiness on the track.  Then it begins.  Everything is a blur of no-time time and swift unconscious judgements and calculations.  There is the familiarity of having performed these movements countless times before, but also the awareness that you are doing it for the first time under these exact conditions, here and now.  And then it’s over.  Your lungs are heaving and when the results appear, tears start spilling out of your eyes.  The thought of being on the podium is unreal and bizarre.  Then a microphone is jabbed at you and the interviewer asks: how did you do it?

Training.  I trained really hard for this, you say.  Then the interviewer moves on because the media isn’t really interested in the hours and hours of repetitions and diet charts and weigh-ins.  But you know that without the days and weeks and months of practice, you wouldn’t be here in the echoing velodrome, the sweat-wet badminton court or on the royal blue Astroturf in Rio, 2016.

800px-Women's_Heptathlon_Victory_CeremonyAn athlete’s training is all for one moment of opportunity: an Olympic competition.  And although I know that writing isn’t competitive in the same way, it does strike me that writers need to be on top form when the opportunity of a good idea, and the time to explore it, occurs.  So while watching the games, I’ve been thinking about the similarities between sportspeople training to compete, and writers using freewriting to practice their art.  I think that freewriting is a sort of training and very roughly equivalent to those hours in the gym, in the pool and on the track, that the top athletes put in.

And this is why: in freewriting you are training your mind to translate ideas as directly as possible onto the page or screen.  “First thoughts” are what Natalie Goldberg calls original, unique-to-you, strong creative ideas.  The aim is to seize these ideas without hesitating or watering them down or letting an internal editor tell you they’re rubbish, and who are you anyway to think you can write?  Freewriting trains you to grasp and record all of your mind’s output (good and bad) and put it down on paper so you can work with it later.  It’s like strengthening a mental muscle by using it repeatedly.   You train yourself to write in a fluent way and at the same time, to follow the guidelines of being as specific and concrete as possible and diving into potentially dark or controversial material if it comes up.  With this training, you can step up when and if the opportunity comes to write the big scene, or the definitive poem.  The idea can get onto the page complete.  Without thinking, you can do the equivalent of a triple salto and still be ready for the big finish.

Girl_playing_white_grand_piano_-_EXPO_2015_Milan_(2015-07-13_10.44.44_by_Luca_Nebuloni)And why shouldn’t writers practice?  Artists of all kinds do exercises to improve skill.  The musician practices scales; the painter has a sketchbook.  So if a writer says to me that they are worried that freewriting will make their work sloppy or that it’s a waste of time, I’m going to point out that it was the hours of training that made it possible for Max Whitlock to win two gold medals in one day.

Whatever public recognition may or may not later come our way, the writer is her own first judge and medal-awarding committee: it’s at the desk or the screen where we know if our wonderful idea has made it out of our head and onto the page.  If we are freewriters I think the chances of producing a winning performance are that much higher.  And in your press interview, when they ask how you did it, you can say it was all down to those hours of training!


Un-free writing, and possession

Right now, like my own students, I’m revising my work.

On April 8th, a year after starting, I completed the first draft of my new novel The Dead Have Time to Listen.  It was an intense last few weeks in which the writing took over my waking and sleeping life and I wrote more and more words every day.  The feeling at the end of writing a novel is like nothing else: a state of possession in which the people and events of the story seem as real, if not more so, than the events of real life.  Now I am the Red-peneditor of my own work: niggling away at every clunky word, misplaced comma and dodgy reference, and trying to root out every glitch and continuity error.  As a teacher I am used to marking (I like it!) but you can probably tell which part of the writing process I prefer!

Revision is a particularly extreme example of un-free writing and it’s led me to reflect by contrast on the qualities of that total immersion in character at the conclusion of writing a novel.  This spontaneous outpouring (sometimes I couldn’t even stop when I tried!) is surely an example of very free writing and I would also liken it to a sort of trance, or possession by spirits, in which the writer is taken over by another identity.  (This is why I can’t answer the phone when I’m working: I’m really not at home!)

Not co-incidentally, my novel is narrated by a dead spirit and also contains scenes of possession in which the narrator provides the highly unusual perspective of being the spirit doing the possessing.

Crevel and TzaraThis also reminds me that the Surrealists were really spiritualists at the very beginning (they called it “the period of sleeping fits”).  In the early 1920s, when Breton was formulating the tenets of the movement, it was the fashion for members of the group to fall into trances and speak or write messages from occult sources. Breton never believed these were communications from the dead but he did accept that they were from the unconscious. Unfortunately, the rivalry that Breton inspired in his followers led to more and more extreme performances of trance and hypnotism.  Robert Desnos and René Crevel competed to fall into ever-deeper states of alienation until Crevel (on the right in the picture) led a mass suicide attempt and Breton called a halt to the whole thing.

Keith Johnstone’s book Impro (on techniques of improvisation for drama students) has been a really important source for my novel and in it he describes the trances of voodoo ceremonies and the equivalent effects of actors being possessed by masks.  He talks about the masks as being inhabited by actual beings who take over their wearer and how the actors have no recollection of the things they have done or the time they have spent under the influence of the mask.

Spanish masksSpooky stuff, but actually sort of familiar to me from that last push on the novel when I would emerge, thousands of words and hours later, with the sensation of not having lived as myself at all.  If I can create the same suspension of self in my readers, then the novel will really have succeeded!

Overall, it seems to be the week for all things dead.  My partner and I perform as Hopewell Ink (see the About page for a recording) and we have been developing a new piece called Electronic Voice Phenomenon.  If you don’t know about EVP it’s, again, linked to the spiritualist tradition and the theory is that the voices of the dead can sometimes be heard in electronic white noise.  The practice of listening for spirit voices in electronic technology goes right back to the earliest gramophone records.

Maori maskFor Hopewell Ink’s attempt to hear the dead speak, I’ve cheated a bit and written some scripts of what they might be saying if we could hear them.  If by chance you can come to our performance at 6.30 on May 22nd in the Crosville Club in Bangor (North Wales), you’ll be able to catch snatches of their reminiscences.  During the performance I’ll do my best to allow these spirits to take over so that, just like the characters in my novel, they can push aside my ordinary, “real” self for a short time at least.


Image sources:

Going to the moon

I’ve been writing for nine years and produced a handful of short stories, some performance pieces, a completed novel and about a third of a second novel. I’ve also filled at least a dozen notebooks with freewriting.

notebooksAs I plan a new course on using freewriting to generate finished, edited prose and poetry, I have to confess that quite a lot about the connection between my own freewriting and my finished work is mysterious to me. Ideas about scenarios, sensuous, recollected details or first-hand observations in situ have all made their way into my stories and novels but a direct, cause-and-effect process would be impossible to find or prove. All I know for sure is that without all that messy writing about my past, my environment, biographies of fictional characters, descriptions of local rivers or the view from my window or foreign streets and coffee shops, I would never have completed — would never even have started — any of those stories, prose poems or novels.

I first began to do a form of freewriting in the year 2000, under the powerful influence of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. The writing she advocates is “morning pages”, a variety of self-development work that divides opinion: either you are disdainful of this sort of activity or you are an evangelist. I began as the first and ended up as the second because, despite a drawer full of childhood stories and plays and embarrassing teenage poetry, I had strenuously denied the desire to write though decades of passionate engagement with literature. Then, like St Peter, I heard the cock crow and realised I had been lying all that time.

The year 2000 was an inconvenient time in my life to become unable to suppress the desire to write. I was half-way through a PhD and finally on track for a full-time academic job, so it took a few years for the universe to fall into line as well as for me to have the courage to jump. But jump I did and it was freewriting that made it possible.

Melies moon
Through my years as a critic and teacher of literature I had an exaggerated, worshipful attitude to the writers I taught and discussed and the fact that my emphasis was on women writers who have had the hardest time to break through their own resistance and society’s barriers to be published only made them all the more remote. It seemed to me that it would be a personal insult to Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf or Angela Carter for me to try to write a novel and any thought of entering into the same field as Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich was an impossibility. It would be like going to the moon: I couldn’t do it. They, on the other hand, had built their own spaceships and owned spacesuits from birth.

Freewriting was the solution for me. When I finally accepted that I had the right to try and that to create bad writing was not going to be fatal, I began. It was a ticket to the moon, and even if I ended up staying in earth’s orbit, it got me off the ground. Only the permission to fail could induce me to try and that’s still the case every time I sit down to write. My love of literature and admiration for the best writers has, if anything, deepened because of course every writer has had to endure the uncertainty of buckling on the bubble helmet and not knowing if they’ll reach the place they’re aiming at, or if they’ll get back safe.

I’ve been doing freewriting for so long now I expect I’m more used to it than I realise, and it will be fascinating to see my students encounter it perhaps for the first time in my class. Nowadays I use freewriting as a sort of dowsing tool. At the moment I tend to write about the characters in my current novel: their pasts, their bodies, their fears and hopes, until they become almost real. The other day I had the weirdest experience sitting outside in the sunshine in a circle of empty garden chairs. For a few seconds I actually thought that my characters were there sitting with me. I couldn’t quite see them but I felt that they were there. It was alarming and my first thought was that I needed to get out more but I also took it as a positive sign that, through all the freewriting I’d done, I’d conjured them into a sort of existence.

Things that Have Inspired Me Part 3: Yoga

I’ve been trying to work out if what I know about yoga, which I’ve practiced on and off since childhood, can help me with freewriting because these two activities seem to be very similar in their aims.

The aim of yoga postures, as I understand it, is to alter the way the mind works. Whilst breathing deeply is very beneficial, and having a slimmer, more flexible body and stronger, leaner muscles is good too, the point of yoga is to learn to step back from habitual thought patterns. The aim is to unite mind and body into one. Then, instead of spinning back over the past, or endlessly speculating about the future, or becoming obsessed with judgement, comparison and self-recrimination (or indeed self congratulation) there is total awareness without ego.

Well, I’ve never even got close to that enlightened state, but I think I might have glimpsed what it might be like once or twice for a few seconds in a yoga class. Then, each time, inevitably, I look around and start wondering what’s for tea or how good I am compared to the others in the room at a particular posture or am I wearing a T shirt as flattering as the one the woman in front is wearing and on it goes. The trick you are meant to use in yoga relaxation for this chatter in the mind (“monkey mind” as it’s sometimes called) is to observe it with detachment and let it go.


In freewriting the idea is to write down anything and everything that is running through the mind without any value judgements and without stopping. It’s observing the mind in another way. But as soon as you allow those same sorts of thoughts that bedevil yoga practice to take over (is this a waste of time? am I writing as much or as fast as everybody else? will it be any good? why should I do this when Virginia Woolf, or whoever happens to be your role model, didn’t need to bother [actually, she did, but that’s a subject for another day!]), the flow is lost. The same monkey-mind thoughts of past, future, comparison and self-worth, reassert themselves and the writing falters and/or becomes stilted, clichéd, self-conscious and boring.

Because I’ve been to a lot of yoga classes I know now to leave my competitiveness and vanity (mostly) behind. In a yoga class, the value of my forward bend is its value to me, not in its relative merit to the person’s next to me (who is inevitably reaching further and looking more svelte while doing it). So if I bring this same attitude to freewriting I might be able to go beyond myself into some bigger realm where the writing and me are at one and not pulling in different directions. For instance, in yoga I accept that I need to practice the same posture again and again and will never reach perfection because the practice is whole point of it: it’s the process, not the result. To accept the same thing about writing would be to release all the energy and possibility of my life’s experiences and knowledge into potential material (once edited) and circumvent that monkey the ego who jumps up at every opportunity to undermine me with notions of good and bad.

mountain yogaSo I think it is true: both yoga and freewriting require relaxation, a lack of competitiveness and a focus on the process not the result. And the aim of both is a dissolving of the self into the practice, whether that is the body stretching or the hand writing so that the ego finally gets out of the way.

Well, we all need something to aim at!


Photo credits:

Warrior II a4gpa on Flickr

both Creative Commons

Sex and the Surrealist Image

What is your definition of beauty? Have you got a favourite line of poetry that describes beauty by using an image to suggest it? If you have, it’s probably not this often-quoted Surrealist simile:

“As beautiful as the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.”

The author is Isidore Ducasse (the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont) and it’s from The Songs of Maldoror, a prose poem of 1868. Lautréamont’s work, and this line in particular, was so popular and important to the development of Surrealism that Man Ray created a ready-made inspired by it.

Man Ray EnigmaI thought it might be interesting to “unpack” Lautréamont’s simile, and see if it could be used as a model for creating new Surrealist images.

First of all, how does it work? A conventional simile would try to find some commonality or similarity between the thing being described and the thing it’s compared to (such as the moon and a silver coin, which are both round and sort of the same colour) but likeness was not the criteria for Surrealist images, neither was appropriateness (and it was most definitely not good taste!).

The Surrealists (whether visual artists or poets) were not interested in reproducing the world as it is, the idea was to plumb the unconscious and use words to produce “unremembered, previously non-existent realities,” as Anna Balakian helpfully explains in The Road to the Absolute.

So the principle of the Surrealist simile or metaphor is the dramatic clash of unlikeness; an impossible meshing of opposites. In fact, writes Robert Short, “the power of an image was in direct proportion to the incongruity of the entities which it brought together”.

So this is all fine and dandy, but Robert Belton, in an essay from 1990, has a very specific reading of Lautréamont’s simile and large claims for its influence on later Surrealist poetry:

“The coincidence of a man’s phallic accessory and an unthinking domestic instrument on a ‘bed’ designed for bloodletting was simply too potently, aggressively, and violently sexual to be avoided…Ducasse’s simile, as the archetypal act of collage, virtually ensured that other juxtapositions would connote sexual violence for the male surrealist.”

Now I was rather taken aback by this reading of the sewing machine and umbrella as a sort of rape scene because it had never occurred to me, but the image does have a lasting power which means it is very likely to have a sexual subtext (why else do we remember that Cadbury’s Flake ad of the woman lying in the boat going through a waterfall rather than countless other television images involving chocolate bars?). But is Lautréamont’s simile really an encoded image of a pierced woman on a bloody bed?

It’s often been remarked that a lot of Surrealist visual iconography is of women in pieces: women beheaded, dismembered, partitioned, bound, gagged or blinded. Whitney Chadwick ponders this phenomenon in Surrealist art by men at the end of her book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement:

“the link [between the unconscious and reality] was often a woman…onto whose image could be projected the secret, and often forbidden, desires and obsessions lodged in the unconscious […] The erotic violence that does exist in the work of woman artists tends to be absorbed into their images of themselves rather than directed out into the world and lodged in an image of the Other”.

I’ve often wondered if the ruined umbrella and draped material in Leonor Fini’s painting of 1940 called L’Ombrelle, (The Parasol) is a reference to Lautréamont’s simile. There is a woman’s eye peering out from behind one of the slashes in the umbrella which, now I have it in my mind, rather supports Belton’s interpretation and Chadwick’s point too.

The UmbrellaSurely it’s possible to draw on the power (which Balakian describes as a sort of electricity) of Surrealist opposition without promoting sexual violence or even being restricted to the predictable territory of male heterosexuality.

Of course not all Surrealist poetic images draw on the abuse of women’s bodies. For instance, Robert Desnos’ “I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal” must be one of the tenderest love poems written (and it’s almost unbearable to know that Desnos died in Terezina concentration camp at the age of 45).

Perhaps my favourite image in Surrealist poetry is the final line of André Breton’s 1948 poem “They tell me that over there”, which describes a mythical paradise and ends with a line describing the absence of evil:

“All the flowering appletree of the sea”.

This metaphor splices two things together so perfectly that you can’t see the join. I’ve spent hours enjoying this image and repeating it to myself: it never loses its magic and suggestibility! Is the sea flowering with surf the colour of apple blossom? Is the tree like a sea of flowers? Is the apple tree from the Garden of Eden or is the sea suggesting the origin of life? It’s all of these, and all at the same time!

Joyce Mansour is a poet I’ve recently discovered. She was an athlete with Egyptian parents and joined the Surrealist group in Paris in 1954. In her poem “Remember” written the following year, she is addressing a lover and conjuring memories of their time spent together:

When we heard the rats jingling around
Eating poppies
You and me.”

As Mary Ann Caws (the translator) says, we do not know who is eating the poppies, the rats or the lovers, because the poem is “constructed for both possibilities”.

So why not try this yourself? Make up a simile beginning “As beautiful as…” and make sure the elements are as unlike as possible but somehow joined at a deeper level. Or create an image that has a “double” movement like Breton’s or Mansour’s, vibrating between meanings.

And watch out for that subtext!

Leonora Carrington at Liverpool Tate: hit or miss?

Major solo exhibitions of women Surrealists are extremely rare so when I first heard that Liverpool Tate were putting on an exhibition of work by the painter and writer Leonora Carrington, I was excited. The Giantess

This would be the first British exhibition for 20 years and, after her death in 2011, it felt like a summing up. Before going, I had heard that there was very little information about her in the exhibition, and no catalogue. Well, I thought, this is perhaps a good thing. Every article I have ever read about Leonora begins with a journalistic account of her extraordinary life from Lancashire debutante to muse of Max Ernst in Paris, then mental breakdown in Spain and finally dramatic escape to Mexico where she lived into old age, continuing to paint and write. The story is irresistible and I, too, am guilty of exploiting it by selecting parts to dramatise in my own novel, Swimming with Tigers. But I was hoping that for once a woman artist might be presented as an artist first, and that biography, in the form of the perennial obsession with women’s sex lives over and above their artistic practice and influences, would be of secondary or minimal importance.

So I went to Liverpool full of high hopes and there were indeed very little details. Of any kind. Worse still, apart from perhaps half a dozen paintings, it felt as though her best work was missing and instead there were many of the more pale, fanciful, schematic pictures plus a lot of juvenile work, some interesting but not particularly gripping theatre artefacts and a frankly embarrassing film that she’d designed costumes for in the early 1970s. It was wonderful to see The Giantess (1950) and have the opportunity to study the tiny figures at the base close up, to see the scale of the magnificent Temptation of St Antony (1947) and the compelling Oval Lady (1942) (well annotated, as an exception). Also there was the entrancing And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953), whose dancing figure on the right is perhaps my favourite piece of Carrington iconography.

Daughter of the MinotaurBut in the three rooms of the exhibition there was none of that fizz of energy, excitement and transgression that a good Surrealist exhibition has, and that the Manchester Art Gallery’s exhibition of 2009, Angels of Anarchy, had in spades (Carrington’s The Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937, was a highlight in Manchester and noticeably absent from Liverpool). I blamed myself. Perhaps I was not in the right mood? Then I started to blame Leonora! Could it be that her life’s work didn’t really add up to much after all?

At home I looked again at Susan Aberth’s excellent book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art (2004) and began to suspect that it was the selection, as well as the curation, of the Liverpool exhibition that had let her down. I know next to nothing about putting together an exhibition of this kind but I did notice how the overwhelming majority of the work was described as belonging to private collections. This is not unusual for Surrealist work, I know, but was it part of the problem? The difficulty of gathering Carrington’s strongest work from individuals across the globe must be immense. But the minimal commentary was not excusable. I know from many years of working on women writers and teaching classes about them that readers have to be given the tools to understand and enter into unknown work. It was good to avoid the “superstar” or tabloid gossip approach but information about Carrington’s intellectual and artistic context was sorely needed. Surely it would have been better to fill one wall with ideas and references than with the series of paintings she did at art school, age 16!

The critics have been fairly neutral. Alice Spawls in The London Review of Books remarked on the curious lack of humour in a show about one of the wittiest of the Surrealists, (although I did revel in the delightful bronze Albino Hog (2003), which was black!). The best newspaper review is by Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph and although it is negative overall, he does try to assess Carrington on her own terms, suggesting she was less of a Surrealist than part of a British tradition of fairy painters. I hope there will be a further, better, show of her work before too long and would encourage everyone to go to Liverpool (the exhibition is on til the end of May) and decide for themselves!
I’m extremely glad that Tate Liverpool have put the spotlight on her and I hope it will send interested people (perhaps including Alastair Sooke?) to seek out Abeth’s book which demonstrates what a unique, fascinating and gifted artist she really was. Carrington’s literary work: hilarious, politically subversive and truly surreal, will be the subject of another post.